4.9.16

Dan Brown's Inferno

When The Da Vinci Code was published in 2003, it became one of the biggest blockbuster novels ever written. Since then, Dan Brown has faced the Herculean task of having to equal that success. The 2009 Lost Symbol (see my blog post on it), although selling extremely well, came nowhere close to its predecessor. And according to Publisher’s Weekly, Inferno’s debut was, in turn, less successful than The Lost Symbol. But because Inferno is a Dan Brown novel, it still did very well. Doubleday reported that in the first five days, it sold more than a million copies.

The story begins with the Harvard professor and symbologist, Robert Langdon, awakening in a hospital with amnesia. He has no idea how he got there, what country he is in, why he is having hallucinatory dreams, or, most importantly, why an assassin has walked into his hospital room and tries to shoot him. He escapes from the shooter by escaping with a young doctor. Langdon spends the rest of his time fleeing from unknown enemies and trying to figure out why he is carrying a suspected biological weapon. Surprises, plot twists, ciphers, and cryptograms dominate the narrative.

Janet Maslin (2013) points out that
there is even a twist built into its 14/5/13 publication date, a numerical anagram of the 3.1415, the approximate value of pi. Why? Because Dante divided hell into circles. Because pi is a hint about measuring them. And because Mr. Brown’s readership has never met an embedded secret it didn’t like.
Inferno is a curious combination of thriller, travel guide, and non-fiction. The novel provides copious amounts of information on Italy, art history, the Renaissance, and of course, Dante’s Inferno.

If you like books that are part mystery and part nonfiction, you will love the novel. But Inferno does not incorporate the fictional and nonfictional sides of the book quite as seamlessly as does his previous two novels. Lengthy descriptions of art history and Italian cities seem strangely out of place in the James-Bond-like, chase-dominated plot sequences. The Washington Post observes, “the book’s musty passageways seem to be not so much holding history up as sagging under its weight. Narration appears lifted from a Fodor’s guide. . .”

If you enjoy what Maslin (2013) calls Brown’s “breakneck, brain-teasing capers,” and if you would like to know more about Florence, Venice, Renaissance art, and Dante’s work, Inferno will exceed your expectations.

Brown, Dan. Inferno. New York: Doubleday, 2013.

Maslin, Janet. “On a Scavenger Hunt to Save Most Humans.” The New York Times. May 12, 2013.

7.8.16

Michael Koryka's The Cypress House

Blending “gritty noir and ghostly visions,” Michael Koryka’s The Cypress House will remind readers of his acclaimed Gothic narrative, So Cold the River (Kirkus Reviews 2010). Kortya published four conventional mysteries in his Lincoln Perry series before attempting to write these unique standalone novels. The Cypress House perfects what So Cold the River introduced – a mystery novel that blends suspense, horror and the supernatural. Marilyn Stasio identifies The Cypress House and The Ridge (Koryta’s next novel) as the best supernatural mysteries of 2011.

Michael Koryka graduated with a degree in Criminal Justice, worked as a newspaper reporter, taught at the Indiana University School of Journalism, and was employed as a private investigator (see his website for additional details on his life).. He wrote his first novel as a freshman in college and although it was rejected, wrote a second one that won an Edgar Allan Poe nomination for best first novel.

When asked to describe the plot of the novel, Koryta replied: “The protagonist, Arlen Wagner, was plagued by premonitions of death during his days on the battlefield. Years later the visions return, and convince him to leave a train in an isolated stretch of Florida. A hurricane forces him to take refuge at a tavern called the Cypress House, which is owned by a woman who seems to be operating at the instruction of local gangsters” (“Q & A with Michael Koryta,” 2011).

Collette Bancroft (2011) identifies the novel as a “gripping noir thriller-ghost story.” Set during the Depression, it is also a powerful combination of historical fiction and supernatural mystery. “Never less than gripping and with the element of the supernatural blending strangely seamlessly with the murderous reality, Koryta,” as The Times (2011) observes, “has crafted a noir novel that simultaneously echoes the 1948 film Key Largo [about the 1935 hurricane] starring Humphrey Bogart, and the Eagles’ Hotel California.”

Although an unlikely setting for terror, the Gulf Coast of Florida is the location of what Alison Flood describes as an “eerie and unsettling thriller.” The setting is indeed hauntingly evocative. “However counterintuitive,” writes Koch (2011), Koryta “makes this curious mix of supernatural prescience and gothic-noir work with a seamless atmospheric certainty.”

Reading the novel may remind some readers of Steinbeck’s work. It has the same intensity as Of Mice and Men, another story about two men combating powerful social forces during the Depression.

Each of the characters in the novel is richly drawn and convincingly portrayed. Arlen Wagner is a particular compelling character, an individual shaped by his experiences in the Great War.

Kirkus Reviews (2010) sums up the novel best: “A commanding performance in the field of supernatural noir.”

Bancroft, Collette. “Young Novelist’s Latest Is Scary Good.” St. Petersburg Times. January 23, 2011.

Koryta, Michael. The Cypress House. New York: Little, Brown, 2011.

“Koryta, Michael: The Cypress House.” Kirkus Reviews. November 1, 2010.

Millar, Peter. “A Deadly Pandora’s Box.” The Times. March 26, 2011.

“Q & A with Michael Koryta.” Sunday Telegraph. February 27, 2011.

3.7.16

James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

For half a century, the legendary P. D. James has written Adam Dalgliesh mystery novels. (See my blogs on A Mind to Murder and The Private Patient.) She has won every major award for mystery writing and now, in her mid-nineties, is showing no signs of slowing down. Indeed, Baroness James of Holland Park is still “whip sharp” according to interviewer, Nick Ahad. In 1972 and 1982, James put aside her Dalgliesh series to write two Cordelia Gray mysteries: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and Skull Beneath the Skin. These highly readable novels are still in print and ebook format today.

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman begins with twenty-two-year-old Cordelia Gray arriving at work one morning. She discovers Bernie, her partner in the private-eye firm, locked in his office, dead from suicide. A new partner in the firm, Cordelia must now run the struggling business on her own. Her first case is to investigate why a scientist’s son committed suicide. Cornelia travels to the victim’s cottage in Cambridge and discovers that he has been murdered, a finding that puts her own life in jeopardy.

James is well known for her clever and intriguing plots. As early as 1977, critics applauded her narrative skills. The Times observed that in each of her novels, “a puzzle is put before us, with evident interest in it for its own sake, something which other writers in the genre who have ventured to extend its bounds have by no means always managed to retain” (Keating 1977).

The many unexpected plot twists in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman keep us in high suspense. Even the end of the novel contains a number of surprises. On her website, James offers the following advice to budding mystery novel writers: “Tension should be held within the novel and there should be no longuers of boring interrogation.” James is the master of such narrative tension.

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, like all her mystery novels, follows the “rules of fair play”:
James always makes sure that information available to the detective is available to the reader. “By the end of the book, the reader should have been able to arrive at the real solution from clues inserted into the novel.” Of course, she also admits that you can provide these clues with “deceptive cunning but essential fairness.”
The New York Times praised James’s “insight into character” (Callendar 1973). Indeed what is especially notable in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is James’s astute depiction of Cordelia Grey. The Times calls her “charming, practical and above all believable” (Keating 1977). Cordelia is a particular likeable character, a spunky survivor in the midst of adversity, danger, and sheer bad luck.

The idyllic Cambridge setting creates an old-world atmosphere that is charming and engaging. Mark Callendar’s Cambridge cottage becomes temporary lodgings for Cordelia. She thinks of this cottage as “a little oasis of order and beauty” in the midst of “chaos and neglect” (chap. 2). Finding order in chaos is the business of the detective novel, and one that provides a strong appeal for readers.

In their starred review, Kirkus claims that An Unsuitable Job for a Woman “upholds the best of the British tradition.” You will agree with Kirkus that the novel is “an impeccable pleasure to read.”

Callendar, Newgate. “Criminals at Large.” New York Times. April 22, 1973.

James, P. D. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. 1972. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2011.

Keating, H. R. F. “Fiction: Strictly Classical Murder.” The Times. March 12, 1977.

James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

For half a century, the legendary P. D. James has written Adam Dalgliesh mystery novels. (See my blogs on A Mind to Murder and The Private Patient.) She has won every major award for mystery writing and now, in her mid-nineties, is showing no signs of slowing down. Indeed, Baroness James of Holland Park is still “whip sharp” according to interviewer, Nick Ahad. In 1972 and 1982, James put aside her Dalgliesh series to write two Cordelia Gray mysteries: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and Skull Beneath the Skin. These highly readable novels are still in print and ebook format today.

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman begins with twenty-two-year-old Cordelia Gray arriving at work one morning. She discovers Bernie, her partner in the private-eye firm, locked in his office, dead from suicide. A new partner in the firm, Cordelia must now run the struggling business on her own. Her first case is to investigate why a scientist’s son committed suicide. Cornelia travels to the victim’s cottage in Cambridge and discovers that he has been murdered, a finding that puts her own life in jeopardy.

James is well known for her clever and intriguing plots. As early as 1977, critics applauded her narrative skills. The Times observed that in each of her novels, “a puzzle is put before us, with evident interest in it for its own sake, something which other writers in the genre who have ventured to extend its bounds have by no means always managed to retain” (Keating 1977).

The many unexpected plot twists in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman keep us in high suspense. Even the end of the novel contains a number of surprises. James is undoubtedly the master of such narrative tension.

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, like all her mystery novels, follows the “rules of fair play." James always makes sure that information available to the detective is available to the reader.

The New York Times praised James’s “insight into character” (Callendar 1973). Indeed what is especially notable in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is James’s astute depiction of Cordelia Grey. The Times calls her “charming, practical and above all believable” (Keating 1977). Cordelia is a particular likeable character, a spunky survivor in the midst of adversity, danger, and sheer bad luck.

The idyllic Cambridge setting creates an old-world atmosphere that is charming and engaging. Mark Callendar’s Cambridge cottage becomes temporary lodgings for Cordelia. She thinks of this cottage as “a little oasis of order and beauty” in the midst of “chaos and neglect” (chap. 2). Finding order in chaos is the business of the detective novel, and one that provides a strong appeal for readers.

In their starred review, Kirkus claims that An Unsuitable Job for a Woman “upholds the best of the British tradition.” You will agree with Kirkus that the novel is “an impeccable pleasure to read.”

Callendar, Newgate. “Criminals at Large.” New York Times. April 22, 1973.

James, P. D. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. 1972. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2011.

Keating, H. R. F. “Fiction: Strictly Classical Murder.” The Times. March 12, 1977.

5.6.16

Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent


The Time cover story on Scott Turow begins with courtroom instructions: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. You have heard the charges against my client. The prosecution argues that with malice aforethought he wrote a novel, Presumed Innocent, with the intent of willfully endangering the sleep habits and on-the-job efficiency of millions of innocent readers. Furthermore, it has been claimed that my client is remorseless.”

Mystery writers have rarely been chosen for the cover of Time. But given the fact that Turow burst upon the literary scene with Presumed Innocent, a legal mystery which won the prestigious Silver Dagger award, remained on the New York Times’s bestseller for 43 weeks, went through 16 hardcover printings, sold 4 million paperback copies, was translated into 18 languages, and was awarded the biggest advance ever for a first-time writer from publishers Farr, Straus & Giroux, it is not surprising that Turow was chosen.

In Presumed Innocent, we first meet Chief Deputy Prosecutor Rusty Sabich at the funeral of Carolyn Polhemus, a colleague and former lover who was raped and brutally murdered. Rusty must investigate the case while also coming to terms with his adultery with Carolyn and her final rejection of him. The situation is further complicated by political circumstances – the Chief Prosecuting Attorney is running for re-election and does not want the publicity surrounding the case to jeopardize his prospects. The case takes a bizarre turn when Rusty is identified as the prime suspect in the case. The story is riveting and the ending will make you want to reread the book.

Turow wrote the novel while working as an assistant U.S. district attorney, a truly remarkable feat. This Harvard graduate, accomplished author, and former Stanford University creative writing instructor still practices law. According to his online biography, Turow focuses on white collar criminal defense cases and devotes time to pro bono matters. He has written a number of books, including 2 nonfiction works; these books have sold more than 25 million copies. In 2010 he wrote, Innocent, a sequel to Presumed Innocent.

CNN identifies Turow as “the father of the legal thriller.” His expertise on legal matters provides him with the inside knowledge that makes Presumed Innocent a convincing and realistic courtroom drama. But Turow is more than a legal expert. He is a skilled storyteller, an insightful observer of society, and an accomplished stylist. In Presumed Innocent, he “combines immense writing talent and considerable legal experience to create an impressive and unusual fiction debut. From page 1, the book consciously transcends the murder-mystery genre, combining whodunit suspense with an elegant style and philosophical voice,” observes Anne Rice in her New York Times review of the novel.

This legal mystery has affinities with the classic British detective novel. Rice points out that
as the investigation progresses, it becomes clear that almost everybody in the novel knew Carolyn. Almost everybody knows everybody else. . . . In sum, this sordid, big-city murder story has the delicious closed quality of the classic country-house mystery, in which anybody from the butler to the visiting Russian cousin might have committed the crime.
Corruption both within and without the legal system is depicted in the novel. Time observes that Turow has made his mark as an author by dramatizing the limits of legalisms: “Both Presumed Innocent and The Burden of Proof weave and coil intricately around the same point: without the law, civilized life is impossible; with the law, civilized life is only nearly impossible.”

Although Turow’s legal background gives him a decided edge on other writers of legal mysteries, it has also proved to be a drawback. Legal details tend to overwhelm Presumed Innocent. As Symons observes, “the relentless mass of detail about court procedure ends by dulling appreciation of Turow’s expertise” (1992, 312).

But most readers will agree with Rice’s assessment that “Presumed Innocent is without doubt an ambitious and absorbing novel, the work of a profoundly gifted writer with a fine, distinctive voice.”

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Mysterious Press, 1992.

Turow, Scott. Presumed Innocent. New York: Grand Central, 1987.

1.5.16

Harlan Coben's Tell No One

Harlan Coben’s mystery series featuring former college basketball star Myron Bolitar has won a number of awards – the Anthony and the Edgar for Deal Breaker, and the Shamus (Best Private Eye Novel) for Fade Away. Although these books have attracted a solid fan base, it is Coben’s stand-alone thrillers that have garnered a particularly impressive following. Tell No One (2001), Coben’s first novel in this genre, as Guttridge observes, is “a pulsing, pacy, devour-at-one-sitting thriller that . . . engendered a four-day bidding war in Hollywood” (Guttridge 2001).

The story begins with a night swim at an old haunt in celebration of a young couple’s anniversary. After Elizabeth emerges from the water, David realizes that it is too quiet. He calls her name, waits in silence, then hears her scream. David is hit by a baseball bat and falls unconscious into the water.

Fast forward eight years and David is now a widowed paediatrician who is unable to get past the death of his wife. On their anniversary, he receives a mysterious email containing clues that suggest his wife is alive. Events then begin to spiral out of control in this fast-paced, gripping narrative. “I don’t remember the last time I felt so driven to finish a novel,” admits St Petersburg reviewer, Jean Heller (2001). “And the final 30 pages, well, you’ll see.”

When David tells his sister Shauna that he thinks his wife is alive, she asks, “If Elizabeth was alive, where has she been for eight years? Why choose now of all times to come back from the grave – the same time, by coincidence, that the FBI starts suspecting you of killing her?” (102). Shauna believes that federal agents are playing “mind games” with David by sending him fake emails.

There is no one who enjoys playing mind games more than Harlan Coben: “I love to fool you once, I love to fool you twice, I love to fool you a third time,” he admitted in an interview with The Telegraph. “And just when you think it’s all over, I have what I call that Carrie hand-out-of-the-grave moment. Just when you think it’s all over, I’m going to hit you with just one more.”

What is the secret of his success? He told CBS news that for him a story must be compelling and gripping: “Every sentence has to be something people want to read. I think it was Elmore Leonard who said, ‘I try to cut out all the parts you’d normally skip’” (Gumbel 2001).

Coben creates his extraordinary narratives out of ordinary circumstances. As he himself claims:
“I don’t write the book where it’s a conspiracy reaching the prime minister; I don’t write the book with the big serial killer who lops off heads,” he says. “My setting is a very placid pool of suburbia, family life. And within that I can make pretty big splashes.”
Those who love suspense-filled psychological thrillers will not be disappointed in Tell No One.

“Author Harlan Coben Discusses His New Book, ‘Tell No One.’” Interview by Bryant Gumbel, CBS: The Early Show. June 19, 2001.

Coben, Harlan. Tell No One. New York: Dell, 2001.

Heller, Jean. “Tell No One.” St. Petersburg Times. June 17, 2001.

3.4.16

Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Man in Lower Ten

Mary Roberts Rinehart’s career as a turn-of-the-century novelist began as a result of financial disaster. Her husband lost their savings in the stock market forcing the family into serious debt. Rinehart’s first novel. The Man in Lower Ten, was accepted for serial publication in 1907. When it was published in book form two years later, it became the first American mystery novel to make the annual bestseller books list (DuBose 2000, 51).

Together with The Circular Staircase (see my blog on the novel), The Man in Lower Ten catapulted Rinehart into literary fame. Her mystery novels were some of the most widely read books of the time. Over a century later these novels are still in print and can be found as free public-domain e-books. (See, for example, the list of her books on the Gutenberg site).

In many respects, Mary Roberts Rinehart was a notable woman of her era. DuBose (2000) points out that she was:
the first American mystery writer to enter the bestseller ranks; a household name that repeatedly appeared in the Most Admired lists favoured by women’s magazines; an associate of kings, queens, presidents, generals, and movie moguls; a Republican feminist who rated burial in Arlington National Cemetery. (35)
The crime in The Man in Lower Ten takes place on a train (a type of enclosed setting that Agatha Christie would put to good use two decades later). Lawyer Lawrence Blakely, who must deliver important trial documents to a client, takes an overnight berth on a train from Washington to Pittsburg. In the middle of the night, his documents are stolen and a man is murdered. Immediately Blakely becomes the prime suspect in the case. The train then crashes, killing most of the people onboard.

The Man in Lower Ten is an intricately plotted mystery story. Indeed, skillful plotting and exciting stories are what Rinehart excels at. Rarely does she include an extraneous character in these cleverly worked out narratives (DuBose 2000, 48, 79).

Rinehart’s characters are typically “upper-middle-class professionals or wealthy and socially prominent” (DuBose 2000, 50). Although the main characters in The Man in Lower Ten are portrayed in a fairly stereotypical manner, the housekeeper and amateur detective are depicted with wit and imagination.

The Man in Lower Ten is also a novel of manners, providing a glimpse of the culture and life of early twentieth-century Americans.

Rinehart is one of the earliest novelists to combine mystery with romance. Modern readers, however, will find the romantic scenes overly sentimentalized.

A gripping plot, witty voice, and faithful depiction of Edwardian America are what makes this novel highly readable. Rinehart’s novels prove that “the ‘golden age’ was by no means an English or between-the-wars phenomenon” (Knight 2004, 84).

DuBose, Martha Hailey. “Mary Roberts Rinehart: The Buried Story.” in Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists, 34-88. 1907. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2000.

Knight, Stephen.
Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity
. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Rinehart, Mary Roberts. The Man in Lower Ten. 1907. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2007.

6.3.16

Owen Laukkanen’s Criminal Enterprise

Owen Laukkanen’s Stevens and Windermere series blurs the line between ordinary individuals and criminals. The first two novels in the series begin with an intriguing scenario of law-abiding citizens turning to crime. Laukkanen, a graduate of the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing Program, started his career by reporting on gambling tournaments around the world. “Despite knowing next to nothing about the game,” writes Medley (2012), “Laukkanen was hired by a website called PokerListings.com and spent . . . three years jet-setting from Monaco to Macau, covering poker tournaments in some of the glitziest casinos in the world.” Laukkanen’s observation of gamblers living on the edge informs and enriches his depiction of characters who throw caution to the wind.

The Professionals, his first novel featuring FBI Special Agent Carla Windermere and Minnesota state investigator Kirk Stevens, was nominated for an Anthony Award. It features four college graduates who turn to a life of crime as an alternative to a minimum-wage existence. Criminal Enterprise, his second novel, is the story of an accountant (Carter Tomlin) who has it all – a lovely wife, two daughters, and a prosperous suburban existence. When he loses his job and falls deep into debt, he decides that one bank robbery will solve his problems. But once hooked on the danger and excitement, this suburban husband and father starts leading an amazing double life.

What really distinguishes this novel is the way Laukkanen depicts the transformation from law-abiding citizen to hardened criminal. Cannon (2013) observes, “As Bonnie and Clyde knew, robbing banks gives you more than cash; it gives you a rush of pure adrenalin that leads, inevitably, to Very Bad Things. Windermere and Stevens have to catch Tomlin before those things happen.”

Tomlin’s gradual escalation of delinquent behaviour is skilfully presented. Like Frances Iles’s Malice Aforethought (see my blog), the seemingly serene life of a suburban couple, masks deep underlying problems.

By blurring the distinction between citizen and felon, Laukkanen suggests that we all have the seeds of criminality within us. “I like the idea”, he tells The National Post, “of people reaching the end of the book and not knowing who to cheer for.”

Although Carter Tomlin occupies centre stage in Criminal Enterprise, investigators Windemere and Stevens are also characters you will not forget. As Tran (2013) observes, “Windermere, Stevens, and Tomlin are strikingly realistic characters sharing varying degrees of dissatisfaction with their lives, and readers will identify with their struggles to reconcile their own needs with their responsibilities to others.”

In its starred review, Kirkus concludes, “Fans of crime thrillers shouldn’t miss this one or anything else with Laukkanen’s name on the cover. The writing is so crisp, the pages almost want to turn themselves. He’s a terrific storyteller.” Readers will agree with Library Journal’s verdict: “This is a terrific Great Recession thriller whose postmodern amorality grips from the beginning.” Anyone who enjoys exciting thrillers and explorations of the criminal psyche will love this novel.

Cannon, Margaret. “Crime Fiction.” The Globe and Mail. March 2, 2013.

Laukkanen, Owen. Criminal Enterprise. New York: Penguin, 2013.

Mendley, Mark. “The Criminal Mind of Owen Laukkanen.” The National Post. May 10, 2012.

Tran, Christine. “Criminal Enterprise.” Booklist 109, no. 11 (2013): 28.

7.2.16

Phillip DePoy's December's Thorn

Actor, playwright, director, and author of two mystery series, Phillip DePoy is a man of many talents. He created the theatre major program for Clayton State University and became its first director (see his website for more autobiographical details). In 2002, DePoy won the Edgar Award for Easy, a play featuring a private investigator. His 7th novel in the Fever Devilin series – December’s Thorn – received a starred review from Kirkus in 2012.

The novel starts with a folktale beginning: “Five nights before Christmas, a stranger came to my door. She was dressed in widow’s black, pale and gaunt, and appeared to be half-frozen by the icy rain” (1). The narrator – a folklorist and former college instructor recovering from a coma – is shocked when this stranger introduces herself as his wife. Fever Devilin does not know who she is; even worse, he is engaged to another woman. Readers begin to wonder if the stranger is real or a figment of Devilin’s imagination. Or is there “a conjunction between myth and reality?” asks Kirkus. “Nobody is better at misdirection than DePoy.”

Readers are drawn into a strange and memorable story in which a sheriff, a young boy who claims to be Devilin’s son, and a psychiatrist all become enmeshed in a mysterious and danger-filled series of events.

The novel takes place in Blue Mountain, a small town in Georgia’s Appalachian Mountains. The atmosphere is both other-worldly and mysterious. The boundary line between reality and fantasy is blurred, a technique that keeps readers guessing throughout the entire story. The clever use of myth and folklore adds a rich layer of meaning to the narrative. Dr. Ceridan Nelsen, for example is described as “a fertility goddess, a poetic muse, and even, sometimes, . . . the Lady of the Lake in the Arthurian cycle” (22).

DePoy’s roots as a playwright are obvious in his skilful use of witty dialogue, particularly the clever repartee between Devilin and Nelson. Although associated with myth, DePoy’s characters are rooted in authenticity.

December’s Thorn will appeal to readers who love quirky characters, an otherworldly atmosphere, and mythic symbolism – but “fans of southern-gothic mystery will [particularly] love this one” (Alesi, 2012).

Alesi, Stacy. “December’s Thorn.” Booklist. December 1, 2012.

DePoy, Phillip. December’s Thorn. New York: Minotaur Books, 2013.

3.1.16

Gaston Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room


If you are looking for a mystery novel with a truly remarkable plot, try Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room. The original French version (Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune) was first published serially in the newspaper L’Illustration in 1907, then in book form in 1908. More than a century later, it is still in print today. Leroux was a man of many talents. A famous novelist, a drama critic, and an investigative reporter, he covered stories from around the world and reported on such events as the 1905 Russian Revolution. He also studied law and was a court reporter for the newspaper, L’Echo de Paris. What he is most famous for is The Phantom of the Opera, a novel with many notable film and stage adaptations. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 award-winning adaptation of the novel became one of the most well-known musicals of the era.

Leroux also wrote a series of mystery novels starring the 18-year-old detective, Joseph Rouletabille. The most celebrated of these is The Mystery of the Yellow Room, a book that some consider “the finest work of crime fiction in the history of the genre” (Platten 2009, 22). The story begins with a newspaper account of an attempted murder of the daughter (Mlle. Stangerson) of a famous scientist. She is incapacitated for most of the novel and unable to provide information about her attack. Although she is heavily guarded, she is hunted down repeatedly by her would-be-murderer.

What immediately grips the reader is the utterly impossible nature of the crime. The narrator Sainclair calls it “the most monstrous and most mysterious crime” he had ever heard of in his career” (109). Leroux hoped to create an even cleverer locked-room mystery than the ones written by Poe and Doyle. In The Mystery of the Yellow Room, the attempted murder occurs in Mlle. Stangerson’s bedroom, a place securely locked from the inside, both window and door. When Rouletabille observes that “the yellow room was as tightly shut as an iron safe,” Sainclair replies, “That is why this murder is the most surprising that I know. Edgar Allan Poe, in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ invented nothing like it” (71). The ending of the novel will take readers by complete surprise with what Knight calls its “startlingly unpredictable revelations” (2004, 81).

Like John Dickson Carr (see my post on The Three Coffins), Gaston Leroux created a mystery that appears supernaturally executed. The narrator observes that the Gothic-like Chateau du Glandier (see my post on the Gothic), is “a place seemingly designed to be the theatre of mysteries, terror, and death” (36). The haunting atmosphere is perfectly suited to a ghostly crime in which the murderer seems to disappear into thin air.

When the attempted murder takes place, Mlle. Stangerson’s scientist father is working on a ground-breaking investigation on the dissociation of matter. This research, Schüett points out, “though never central to the narrative, nonetheless informs it” (2003, 69). The essential attribute of the attacker, the ability to disappear at will, “parodies the principles underpinning Monsieur Stangerson’s research” (Plattern 2009, 24).

One of the strongest appeals of the novel is the character of the detective. The brilliant young reporter, Rouletabille, is a “much younger, smarter, French brother of Sherlock Holmes,” a detective who “spots clues that everyone else has missed, makes deductive leaps no one else is imaginative enough to contemplate and throws out cryptic remarks to his Dr. Watson, the lawyer Sainclair, which goes to the heart of the puzzle” (Shephard and Rennison 2006, 96).

Agatha Christie was strongly influenced by Leroux’s mystery stories; she used the same country house settings and skillful clue-puzzle plots (Schüett 2003, 69). If you enjoy puzzling crimes, atmospheric settings, and intriguing plots, you will agree with Shephard and Rennison who claim that The Yellow Room Mystery is “one of the greatest of all ‘locked room’ mysteries” (2006, 96).

Knight, Stephen. Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Leroux, Gaston. The Mystery of the Yellow Room. 1908. New York: Arno Press, 1976.

Platten, David. “Origins and Beginnings: The Emergence of Detective Fiction in France.” In French Crime Fiction, edited by Claire Gorrara, 14-35. Cardiff, UK: University of Wales Press, 2009.

Schüett, Sita A. “French Crime Fiction.” In The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction, edited by Martin Priestman, 59-76. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Shephard, Richard and Nick Rennison. 100 Must-Read Crime Fiction Novels. London: A & C Black, 2006.

6.12.15

Bill Pronzini's The Hidden

The suspect is known as the Coastline Killer – a serial murderer who chooses his victims at random from a stretch of the rugged northern California coast. Bill Pronzini’s The Hidden begins with a depiction of four murders, each narrated from the killer’s perspective. The story then shifts abruptly to a couple driving along “a treacherous cliffside section of Highway 1” en route to a winter getaway (13). The reader knows that these two plotlines will converge and eagerly awaits the results. As the subtitle indicates, this is indeed “a novel of suspense.”

At this time of year, I traditionally discuss a Christmas mystery (see my blogs on Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, A Christmas Secret, Visions of Sugar Plums, and Jerusalem Inn). The Hidden takes place in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day as Jay and Shelby Macklin drive to an isolated cottage for a holiday that turns horribly wrong. This is a novel of violent snowstorms, power blackouts, and a haunting seaside setting – in fact, the perfect book for a winter night.

Bill Pronzini, best known for his Nameless Series (see my blog on http://mysterypageturners.blogspot.ca/2012/11/bill-pronzinis-schemers.html), is an impressive writer who has garnered two prestigious lifetime awards (The Grand Master for mystery novels and The Eye for private eye novels). He and his wife, Marcia Muller (see my blog on The Ever-Running Man), are one of the few couples to have both been honoured with these awards.

Pronzini, like Ellery Queene before him, has always been a tireless advocate of the genre. Daniel J. Hale, Executive Vice President of Mystery Writers of America, points out that “Bill Pronzini is not only a passionate author and reader of crime fiction – he is also one of the most ardent proponents of the genre. . . For forty years he has distinguished himself with consistently high-quality writing and editing in all areas of the field.”

The Hidden is not just a thriller, but a psychological thriller (see my blog on this subgenre). Pronzini probes beneath the surface of characters, providing readers with insight into both the ordinary and the extraordinary mind. As Gaughan (2010, 50) observes, “Pronzini has written 70-plus novels, and The Hidden demonstrates that he’s aging like fine wine. Jay, Shelby, and even the Coastline Killer are complex and engaging characters.” All of them have something to hide, even from their conscious selves.

Pronzini’s novel is the perfect choice for those who enjoy a psychological thriller with a brooding sense of menace.

Gaughan, Thomas. “The Hidden.” Booklist 107, no. 1 (2010): 50.

Pronzini, Bill. The Hidden: A Novel of Suspense. New York: Walker, 2010.

1.11.15

Anna Dean's A Woman of Consequence

If you enjoy the novels of Agatha Christie and Jane Austen, you will love Anna Dean’s historical mystery series. The Dido Kent novels combine the best of mystery and historical fiction. What led Dean to write Regency mysteries? She confesses, “I love the countryside, old houses, old letters, word puzzles, and the literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is a combination of all these interests which resulted in the writing of the Dido Kent Mystery series.” A Woman of Consequence, the third novel in the series, was selected as one of Kirkus Reviews’s Best Fiction Books of 2012. According to Kirkus, the novel “is another delight, complete with perfect regency prose and an excellent mystery.”

Dido Kent, who lives with her brother and his family in an English vicarage, is asked to investigate mysterious events at Madderstone Abbey. Dido’s friend, Penelope Lambe, suffers a serious fall upon seeing what she thinks is the “Grey Nun,” a legendary ghost who haunts the Abbey. When a skeleton is then discovered in the abbey pond, Dido digs into the past and unravels a tale of intrigue and family secrets.

Dean is as delightfully ironic as her favourite author, Jane Austen. When a mother in Dean’s novel, for example, tells Dido that her “poor Georgie is so very distressed,” Dido glances “at the poor sensitive child who was now absentmindedly beating the doll’s head against the leg of a chair” (28).

Like Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (see my blog) and Bram Stokers’s Dracula (see my blog), Dean’s novel makes effective use of characters’ letters. Dido reveals her inner thoughts and fears in correspondence with her sister. She conveys a sense of immediacy and heightened animation in passages such as the following: “Oh dear! Forgive my rambling, Eliza. I am writing down my thoughts as they arise and I doubt you will be able to make any sense of them” (143).

Historical mystery fans will not be disappointed in A Woman of Consequence. “The adherence to conventions of the time,” observes Library Journal, “the clever use of social details to decipher the mystery, and the slow development of the mature romantic relationship between Dido and her suitor make for a satisfyingly enjoyable historical series. Readers won’t be able to get enough of Miss Dido Kent and Mr. William Lomax” (Hayman 2012, 54).

Dean, Anna. A Woman of Consequence. New York: St Martin’s Press, 2012.

Hayman, Stacey. “A Woman of Consequence: The Investigations of Miss Dido Kent.” Library Journal 137, no. 2 (2012): 54.

4.10.15

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

The approach of Halloween – that time of ghosts, goblins and monsters – is the perfect time to read the classic novel, Frankenstein. So powerful is this novel that many more people know the story than have actually read the book. More than 400 film productions of the book and countless other media/format adaptations of it have been produced over the years (Lederer and Ratzan 2005, 462).

This extraordinary story was written by Mary Shelly, an adolescent at the time of writing. Daughter of celebrated authors, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin (see his Gothic novel, Caleb Williams), Mary Shelley met the famous poet, Percy Shelley, at the age of 17. Despite the fact that he was married and had two children, Mary eloped with him within a few months of their first meeting. Such choices in the early nineteenth century guaranteed social censure and ostracism. At age 19, months after giving birth to her second child, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. By the time she was 25, three of her four children had died, Percy Shelley’s former wife had committed suicide, and Percy Shelley had drowned in a boating accident (Smith 1996).

Frankenstein, as Mary Shelley writes in the preface to the novel, was written when Mary and Percy were vacationing with Lord Byron in Italy. A stretch of rainy weather confined the trio indoors, so they passed the time by reading a book of ghost stories, an activity that prompted Lord Byron to suggest an idea. “We will each write a ghost story,” he proposed and thus began Frankenstein(7).

The novel has been described as a ghost story, a work of science fiction, a Gothic novel, a supernatural tale, a psychological thriller, and a horror story. Central to all these genres is the element of mystery and suspense. Mary Shelley’s intent, as she herself explained, was to write a story that “would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror – one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart” (8). Scaggs has commented upon the similarities between her stated intent and the modern crime thriller (2005, 106).

Frankenstein begins as a series of letters written by a voyaging brother to his sister back home. The brother tells the tale of Victor Frankenstein, a man he meets in the northern stretches of Russia. As a young man, Frankenstein, travelled to Ingolstadt, Germany to study at the university. Once there, he became obsessed with finding the secret to the creation of life. Eventually he produced a live creature, an experience that made him recoil in horror and run from his creation. The monster is left deserted, and once he realizes how ostracized he is from humankind, he retaliates by killing – one by one – the people closest to his creator.

As science fiction, this story initiates the “experiment-gone-wrong” type of novel (Lederer and Ratzan 2005, 464). Although Frankenstein did not intend to create a specifically monstrous type of being, he sought out the raw materials for it from charnel houses, graves, abattoirs, and live animals that he killed. Shelley’s readers would have known that the only bodies available for dissection at the time were those of convicted criminals (Lederer and Ratzan 2005, 457). Frankenstein’s thirst for forbidden knowledge had become had become a dark obsession, as indicated by the monster’s origins.

Frankenstein’s monster is a classic doppelganger or double. As Joseph observes, the interdependence of the creator and his creation
is evoked with considerable power in the last part of Frankenstein’s narrative in which Frankenstein, from being the pursued, becomes the pursuer; yet, by a sort of complicity, he is also lured on willingly by the monster across the snowbound landscape of Russia. (2006, xi)
The creature is a reflection and projection of the monstrous impulses of his creator. Forerunner of the modern psychological thriller, Frankenstein probes the dark recesses of the human mind, and resonates with readers long after it is finished.

In her preface, Mary Shelley called the novel her “hideous progeny” (10). As Baldrick points out, the book is self-referential, commenting on the act of authorial creation,
Books themselves behave monstrously towards their creators, running loose from authorial intention and turning to mock their begetters by displaying a vitality of their own. . . Like the monster it contains, the novel is assembled from dead fragments to make a living whole; and as a published work, it escapes Mary Shelley's textual frame and acquires its independent life outside it, as a myth. (1987, 31)
The supernatural story is framed within a series of concentric narratives. These frames connect the bizarre fantasy story with the outer realistic framework, a technique used to convince readers of the tale’s plausibility and to contain the horror.

Baldrick, Chris. “The Monster Speaks: Mary Shelley’s Novel.” In In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity and Nineteenth-Century Writing, 31-63. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.

Joseph, M. K. “Introduction.” Frankenstein Mary or The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley, v-xiii. 1818. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Lederer, Susan E. and Richard M. Ratzan. “Mary Shelley: Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus.” In A Companion to Science Fiction, edited by David Seed, 455-65. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. Scaggs, John. Crime Fiction. London: Routledge, 2005.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Smith, Johanna M. “Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: A Biography.” In Mary Shelley, 1-18. New York: Twayne, 1996.